Sunday, 1 October 2017

Karoo surveys: a silent spring

I have to admit, this month turned into a bit of a blur akin to some crazy computer game. The levels were: wake up, navigate dark dirt roads with kamikaze bunnies and suicidal steenbok; try and find the farm associated with the survey block; then earn points trying to spot birds over a wide an area as possible. Apart from one workshop in Cape Town, this was the routine every single day this month.

But scanning over the map of areas surveyed, each survey block was also unique in some way or another. In the south east, there was a pentad where Knysna Turaco and Woodpecker and other forest birds were recorded. Near Colesburg, a pentad had suffered a recent fire, but Grey-backed Finchlarks and Pink-billed Larks were everywhere.  Access to another pentad on the way to Villierstad nearly had Dale and I defeated when a stroke of luck allowed us access to a track that wound its way up into the mountains with views north to the Gariep Dam. 

Again this month’s surveys were characterized by extreme hospitality. Take the case of Willie Jordaan: I’d needed a base in the Hofmeyr area. I’d written to Willie and he’d said no problem, we could stay at his home. Then a shuffle of dates meant that we’d arrive when he was away. Somewhat unbelievably, he said we could stay anyway. So he left us, people he’d never met before, keys to his house, which we were free to use for the next 3 days before he arrived back. Then we arrived back from another long day out to a huge pot of lamb stew he had cooked for us. At another site I was adopted for the evening by Ryan Black and family, despite have spent the previous night sleeping in the bakkie and looking rather dishevelled.

Despite it being spring, flowers tend to be scarce. Drought continues to affect most of the region; and appears to be getting worse! A few months ago at the start of the survey, I’d written that one farmer we’d visited said this was the worst drought for 40 years. Then we met a farmer who said it was the worst drought for 60 years…. And to trump that most recently in the Bedford area one farmer mentioned that this was the worst drought in 100 years! Imagine what a few months more of drought will mean….

Actually, overall, the eastern Karoo is a lot better off than the western Karoo: vast swathes of grass pointed to good summer rains in most places. However, the tradeoff with the dry winter and paucity of recent rains means the area is now prone to fire, as mentioned around Colesburg. Our last survey block for the month was just north of Nieu Bethesda, and happened to contain the highest free standing peak in the Eastern Cape: Compassberg. Dale and I thought it would be great to survey up the mountain. However, the day we headed out, within hours a berg wind had picked up, and winds were gusting well over 10 meters a second, blowing hot and dusty. Certainly not a day for being outdoors, and we abandoned surveys early to retreat indoors to catch up on admin. That night, we awoke to the sound of thunder, but morning would reveal that the storm had brought no rain – instead it had brought fire. The mountains close to us were aflame. Braving heat, wind and fire, we managed a few more counts before abandoning the area for safer pastures.

Pied Crow harassing a young Martial Eagle

Eastern Long-billed Lark

Angora goats

Looks like an African Rock Pipit

Village Weaver displaying on his nest

Crowned Eagle: this bird had a nest behind a farmer's house. The farmer was quite proud of his eagles.

Large-billed Lark

A dark-form Familiar Chat

Yellow-bellied Eremomela

Spotted Eagle-owl

Eatern Clapper Lark

Blue Korhaan

Pink-billed Lark

Female Grey-backed Finchlark

Male Grey-backed Finchlark

Another juvenile Martial Eagle

Northern Black Korhaan

African Stonechat

Klaas's Cuckoo

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